Blog: The Wayback Machine

Over the years, Hannibal Tabu has written a lot of blogs. More than 1,100 of them went down on the Good Ship Myspace alone.

This space will seek to preserve and resurrect selected surviving members of those legions of rants and ravings from websites long gone. enjoy.

"I Got A Letter From The Government ..."

picture of the Terminator X, Flavor Flav and Chuck D from Public Enemy, circa 1988

NOTE: Many years ago, my good friend Adisa Banjoko asked me to submit a piece for a book that was to come out called Chicken Soup for the Hip-Hop Soul, aiming to capture experiences people had with hip hop as well as speak to some of the luminaries in the field, back when a teenaged actor named Aubrey was just getting his driver's license. I submitted the following piece, they all loved it ... and then funding got pulled for the book and it never saw the light of day. Here's a brief beam of it, based on how I discovered one of my favorite groups of all time.

The number 53 bus used to pick me up a block south of Lincoln Park High School in Tacoma, Washington. I normally walked an extra two blocks east, to be a few stops ahead of the crowd and increase my chances on getting a seat. I stood there, one uncharacteristically sunny afternoon near the end of my freshman year, pawing through my favorite jacket and backpack, desperately questing for a quarter, so I could blow off some time at the off-brand convenience store on the corner, playing an appropriately subtle and complicated new game ironically called Final Fight. My pockets were as bereft of coins as my backpack was of homework, and the mad ponderings and assorted notes to myself managed to settle themselves back into place as I let the bag rest against my right calf.

I stood there, alone, watching the cars flitter by and thinking my own dark thoughts, for about ten minutes. My scheme of stop-hopping was pretty clever, but I was far from the first Lincoln High student to dream it up. Perhaps it had been scribbled in Navajo code and passed across aisles of desks as far back as the forties, I didn't know. Three other kids, probably sophomores or juniors, walked up and eyed me suspiciously before deciding I was beneath notice. I'd just moved to Tacoma a few weeks before, and there was nothing much to interest most people in a skinny kid with a big head, big glasses, and a year-old Run DMC Adidas jacket.

A bus soon roared westbound on 38th Street, but it flew right by us without any interest in stopping. I saw the people, packed in like a fat girl's foot in a size 4 shoe, and raised no protest. Number 53 busses ran every ten minutes, and the next one, or the one after, would be much more suited to my teenaged misanthropy and desire to avoid human contact.

One of the other kids standing at the stop had a less zen attitude about it, and he raised his hands and hollered in anger, cursing and sucking his teeth. I took notice of him for the first time, and got a seed of something stuck in my head.

It wasn't his dark, dark skin -- he was one of the darkest Black people I've ever seen, then or since, who wasn't from the continent. It wasn't his fresh Guess? jeans or his expensive sneakers ... he was wearing a deep green sweatshirt with an image on it that invaded my eyes and set up a bivouac in my brain. A group of Black men were screen printed on the shirt, most in camouflage, but one in just regular gear, one wearing a ridiculously oversized clock around his neck, and another with a huge flattop and menacing sunglasses. I struggled to read the words on the shirt as the kid gestured and conversed with his friends. "Public ... Enemy ..." I thought to myself, slowly piecing the words together. "It takes ... a nation of ... millions to hold ... us back."

Millions of people? Just to hold these guys back? Not even stop them conclusively, no, but just give them pause? I'd been listening to rap music since the first sounds of Kurtis Blow or Melle Mel rang out of my boom box from Magic 101 in Memphis, but this was simply the most astounding statement of hip hop braggadocio that I had ever seen. An aspiring emcee myself (who wasn't in those days?), the picture of a crowd of people, struggling to restrain seven Black guys with mics and turntables ... it was amazing to me. On top of that, they were big enough to have shirts? I filed that tidbit of data in my cavernous and labyrinthine brain for later analysis, the kid escaping my view permanently when he climbed on the next crowded bus and disappeared to its rear, hidden behind a sea of everyday humanity.

I didn't get a chance to think about Public Enemy again for a week and a half. There was no world wide web in those days, and living with my mom in government assisted housing with no cable and precious few friends, I had enough going on without hitting up the few weirdos I did know for this kind of arcane data. It was another afternoon much like that one, save the nearly everpresent blanket of clouds brought back its overcast pall to the skies, when I got off the 53 at the Mall Transit Center (it was extra crowded that day, and I figured an hour or so would thin out the crowd so I could get a seat all to myself) and walked across the vast parking lot to Tacoma Mall.

I don't remember the name of the music store that was there -- in a mall, you just find the place with CDs visible from the concourse, who cares what corporate branding it held -- but I remember walking up and down its aisles, examining the music with dismay. I had a crisp ten dollar bill and a rumpled five, reward for some negotiated chore, crumpled cautiously in the left pocket of my jeans, and everything that was new that day didn't seem worth my money. I finally made my way to the singles before I saw it. Gray cardboard label. Black logo. White stencilled letters.

Public Enemy. "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos."

I had no idea what the hell all that meant, but it sounded insanely cool. I picked up the single, flipping its cool plastic over in my moist palms, and read the back of the label. "Caught, Can I Get A Witness" as a b-side. Alien sounding names ... Ridenhour, Drayton ... and a price tag that listed it, on sale, as only a buck fifty. Unable to pass that up, I walked over to the counter, bought it quickly, and made my way back towards the Transit Center.

It started to rain, a pissy drizzle with no real power behind it, before I made it halfway across the lot. The first lesson I learned about living in Tacoma, and most of the Pacific Northwest, was that rain was as regular a part of my life as my bus pass, my locker, my bedroom. If a week went by without it, people started looking at one another strange. In retrospect, I probably am overestimating it, but for a country-ass nerdy kid with anger management issues from Tennessee, it sure felt like that. I hunkered down, running for the relative safety of bus shelters, seeing the 53 pull in. I didn't get a chance to slide my headphones on, or reach into my jacket and change tapes, until I was sitting in the next to last seat on the bus' right side, my back to the gap where the rear door was, blissfully undisturbed. I thoughtlessly tore the plastic wrapper, slid out the pristine cassette single, yanked out the Al B. Sure tape that was in my Walkman and changed my entire life.

"I got a letter from the government the other day/ I opened and read it, it said they were suckers!/ They wanted me for their army or whatever/ ... picture me givin' a damn I said never!/ here is a land that never gave a damn/ about a brother like me and myself, because they never did ..."

The bus made its way through the rain, the sliding tone of tires on wet blacktop moving alongside. Both songs on the cassette had played twice, the auto-reverse clicking faithfully from one side to another, by the time I saw my stop coming. Back then, the 53 circled around by rival Mount Tahoma High School, before spinning back to 56th Street and dropping me off between a convalescent home and an AM/PM before I'd make my block walk, up the hill, to the apartment I shared with my mother. I saw the AM/PM coming up on the horizon as Griff grittily said, "... just one sec ..." in my ear. I glanced up at the string that would signal the stop ... and was still looking at it as the bus zoomed by.

The bus pulled back into the Mall Transit Center a little under a half hour later. I stormed back into the music store and grabbed the first employee I could find. I shoved the single's cover, now holding my well-worn copy of In Effect Mode, in the kid's face and said, "I just bought this. Where's the album?"

The album wasn't on the shelves, but an unopened set of copies was in the back. I went home, listening, reading the lyrics, absorbing things I knew nothing of. Chesimard, Farrakhan, Panther Power ...

Turns out my mother was in Fred Hampton's chapter of the Panthers, something I'd never known, and wouldn't have until she noticed me reading things aloud from the lyrics sheet. I weirded out Tacoma Public librarians, poring through card catalogs and encyclopaedia, looking for more of this alien data to fill my head and start the de-programming I needed to become the man I am today.

When I finally met Chuck D, years later, I was able to thank him for that impact on my life, and I do so every day. I may not play the albums as much as I used to, or may be quicker to quote Brother J than Chuck these days (I came up on X Clan so late, during rites of passage in college), but Public Enemy and those words and that voice symbolize a kind of chrysalis period in my life I regard as some of my most crucial times.